Last week, I saw an interesting post on Instagram with a picture of an Italian M11/39 tank. That made me think that the subject of Italian tankers in World War II might be a good subject to spend some time with. I will not get too far into the technical data of Italian armor. If you are reading this, you already know that the quality of Italian tanks left a lot to be desired. Still, I would like to get the ball rolling on a discussion of Italian armor and the men who took them into battle.
For as long as I have been studying World War II, I’ve admired the Italian tankers. Imagine going to war with equipment that you knew to be inferior to almost anything that the enemy could field. Such was the lot of the Italian tanker. The M11/39 is a very good example of substandard armor design. While most advanced nations were building tanks with main guns in turrets (one exception being the French Char B1–
which mounted a 47mm gun in a turret and a 75mm howitzer in the hull), the M11/39 mounted its main gun in the forward hull. This limited its traverse, and required aiming the whole tank at potential targets. The M11/39 turret, mounting two 8mm machine guns, provided minimal defense against infantry, and next to no attack value when facing enemy armor. Armor protection on the M11/39 was relatively light at 10 to 30 mm. Such armor might be useful against some of the 20mm weapons employed early in the war, but would not hold up against the 37mm and larger guns being mounted on most contemporary tanks. Compounding the weaknesses in fighting capacity were the facts that the tank was slow–topping out at 20 miles per hour–and subject to mechanical breakdowns, particularly in the harsh desert conditions in which it was principally deployed. Nevertheless, the Italian army fielded 100 of these vehicles. Most of the M11/39s fielded during served in the North African campaigns of 1940-1941. Almost all of them served in the Gruppo Maletti, organized in two medium tank battalions. The Italian offensive of September 1940 saw the M11/39s meet with mishap after mishap. After initially getting lost trying to move to their jumping off positions, Gruppo Maletti then found itself hampered by supply and organization problems more than the enemy. By the time the offensive stalled at Sidi Barrani, roughly 50 miles inside Egypt, M11/39s were breaking down and straggling to keep with the main body. So far, however, there were few casualties due to enemy action. That would change when, on December 9, Commonwealth forces counterattacked. Attacked by the superior British tanks, the M11/39s did not fare well, with large numbers of them being destroyed or captured. The tank simply did not hold up against the British 2-pounder guns that were carried on the cruisers and Matildas. The Italian’s 37mm main gun also fared poorly against the thicker armor of the British tanks. Only against the Vickers Mk. VI did the M11/39 have any success.
Unfortunately for Italian tank crews, serving in an M11/39 did not offer very good chances for longevity. Contemporary enemy anti-tank weapons easily pierced the tank’s armor, and even small arms fire could cause crew casualties if a bolt or rivet were hit. Crews courageous enough to climb into equipment like this deserve respect–something not often given to Italian soldiers in World War II. Unfortunately, Italian tankers could not count on newer designs to level the playing field, as the successors M13/40 and M14/41 were obsolete before they ever fired a shot.